Nanotechnology, the science of studying and manufacturing systems at the nanometer (1 nanometer = 1 billionth of a meter) level, has the potential to start a revolution in healthcare.
One of the most promising areas of nanotechnology for healthcare is that of prevention, which is stopping diseases and illnesses before they occur, even before they start to develop.
The majority of our healthcare system is based on a reactive approach, that is, to remedy health issues once they have surfaced. Although this approach is problem-solving, it leaves some marks on the individual. Some damage has occurred once a disease has developed and although we may be cured the body “suffers” a trauma due to the disease and the cure of the disease. In addition, many studies have established that prevention is more cost-efficient than reactive medicine.
Nanomedicine, understood as nanotechnology applications for medical problems, has the potential of preventing diseases and illnesses before they start instead of simply treating an ailment.
There are three main areas where nanotechnology is helping right now in prevention efforts. Nanotechnology applications in monitoring diseases or patients, antimicrobial coatings to prevent microorganisms to proliferate in foods and packages, and nanofilters to weed out, at the nano scale, chemical and microbial contaminants.
In these applications nanotechnology can successfully be used to monitor a patient's health. Many applications under development will allow (some already do) to quantify different health markers such as blood pressure, blood levels of sugars, hormones, and antibodies, body temperature, heart functioning–all at one point in time and without the need for the patient to go to a lab or to leave blood samples. Additionally, by using nano-technolgical systems it is possible to measure hundreds of complicated factors at the same time, avoiding the risk of losing samples waiting days for lab results, and lab mess-ups. At a not so distant point in the future the information could be sent wirelessly to a computer in the doctor’s office
An easy way to prevent medical issues is to prevent contact and exposure to pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Filters are being constructed with nanopores. These nanofilters are able to remove the smallest of the known viruses. Such nano filters are already used today in the fight against diseases such as SARS and to prevent medical staff from getting infected in hospitals and clinics.
Antimicrobial coatings is another promising area for preventing diseases. Antimicrobial coatings can significantly reduce the ability of bacteria and viruses to stick to surfaces that may be in contact with body fluids during surgical procedures. These coatings, built nanotechnologically, can include special microbicide agents, such as titanium dioxide nanoparticles, or silver-gold particles that can efectively kill microbes directly.
As the future becomes the present we are going to witness a revolution in healthcare. Many of these revolutionary steps will be guided by developments in the nanotechnology science. Prevention is an area where we will see many advances.